To any rap tune of your choosing:

I want to say,

There’s a big payday

For the ones who say

There’s just no way

That Moses, Jesus, and Martin

Pissed on religion

But there’s just no way

To make a case for that vision

Yet another ill-informed commentator with a camera, a really great leather jacket, and a nice make up job has declared his preference for living down and dirty with the outcasts, choosing Jesus over religion.  It’s a great piece and really compelling.

Too bad he doesn’t know much about history, the Gospels, or Jesus for that matter:

  • Jesus, who cared about what was happening in Israel (read religion)
  • Jesus, who went to the Temple to study Torah (read religion)
  • Jesus, who challenged the Temple leadership to be faithful in the discharge of their duties, but didn’t deny the legitimacy of their office (read religion)
  • Jesus, who warned the Temple’s leadership about the impending judgment facing Israel, as embodied by the Temple, but didn’t see its demise as necessary or even desirable (read religion)
  • Jesus, who wept over its leadership’s refusal to listen, as did his prophetic predecessors — who also thought the problem with the Temple’s priests was that they weren’t authentically what they were meant to be (read religion)

There’s not the slightest suggestion in the Gospels that Jesus distinguished between himself and Judaism, or the shape of his spirituality and his commitment to religious practice.  In fact, the distinction between spirituality and religion would have been unintelligible to him.

What the slick video would have done well to rap on was a distinction made by Gordon Allport over sixty years ago now, but is as old as human behavior itself: the difference between mature and immature religious outlooks.  Writing in The Individual and His Religion, Allport points out that three things distinguish someone who is mature in their religious convictions from those who are immature.

They possess:

  • values that transcend infantile desires
  • the ability to reflect deeply on one’s own life, seeing it in cosmic perspective (and with a sense of humor)
  • a coherent (though in all likelihood, never complete) and unifying religious world view that aids in personal integration

Arguably Allport’s categories apply imperfectly to Christianity, or to any other religion, for that matter.  They are, after all, a modern attempt to identify a phenomenon that has ancient roots that doesn’t yield easily to a one-size-fits-all analysis.  But at a minimum, Allport points us to the real problem: It is not religion, but the way in which we appropriate it, that subverts the virtues of the religious life.

You can call that failure the product of immature religious sensibilities (as Allport does), you can describe it as immaturity pure and simple, or you can describe it as hypocrisy.  But it’s simplistic, misleading, and even a bit immature to describe the problem as the difference between religion and Jesus.

When it surfaces, I don’t like hypocrisy any better than the video’s rapper.  I’m an Episcopal priest.  I have years’ worth of reasons for wanting to walk out on religion, as does anyone who has ever spent time in the church — any church.  But as Karl Rahner points out, “sinners still belong to the church.”  To offer the self-righteous criticism that the church fails us masks the fact that we fail Jesus as well.

One could argue, of course, as the rapper implies, that he doesn’t compound his failure by trying to be religious.  The answer to which is, “No, he makes a video trumpeting the presumption that he is too righteous to be religious.”  In other words, he does precisely what we cannot do, because none of us can claim to be without sin.

By all means, we should be critical of the church.  That kind of criticism, like the criticism that Jesus offered of the Temple leadership in his own day, is a necessary (though not the only) piece of what it means to listen to God.  But we cannot be spiritual alone and, to coin a phrase, no one is a self-righteous island.

It feels good to visit that place.  I’ve always enjoyed trips there.  But Allport and Rahner are both right.  It’s an immature and spiritually dangerous place to live.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.